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The Eastern Desert of Egypt during the Greco-Roman Period: Archaeological Reports

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Jean-Pierre Brun
, 
Thomas Faucher
, 
Bérangère Redon
, 
et al.

Some Topographical Problems around Myos Hormos: Philotera-Philoteris

Wilfried Van Rengen

Texte intégral

1The topographical issues discussed in this article are a result of the discovery of about 800 ostraka, mainly Greek, during the excavations by the University of Southampton at Qusayr al-Qadim/Myos Hormos (1999-2003). There are few toponyms, but there is one that is relatively well represented: Philoteris, which spontaneously evokes a port on the Red Sea known by the ancient geographers as Philotera, the name of a Ptolemaic foundation, whose exact location is not certain. Our ostraka do not resolve this problem; instead they create new ones.

2Myos Hormos is undoubtedly a Ptolemaic foundation, because the port is mentioned by Agatharchides of Knidos (second half of the second century BC). Strabo (16, 4, 5) informs us that the city was also called Ἀφροδίτης ὅρμος (Port of Aphrodite) and describes it as a λιμὴν μέγας τὸν εἴσπλουν ἔχων σκολιόν (a large port with an entrance that is oblique/winding). The port enjoyed substantial growth during the Augustan era: 120 ships left each year for India and Arabia (Strabo 2, 5, 12).

  • 1 On Myos Hormos, with a detailed summary of the hypotheses about the location, see Cohen 2006, pp. 3 (...)

3Myos Hormos has long been identified with Abu Sha'ar, a site very much further north, but since the 1990s it has been well established, on the basis of solid geological and archaeological evidence and papyri, that, at least during the Roman period, the port of Myos Hormos was present day Qusayr al-Qadim.1 The problem was that at that location, before the excavations of the University of Southampton, there were no traces of Ptolemaic occupation. This gave rise to the theory that the city of Qusayr, 7 km south, was Ptolemaic Myos Hormos, and that at the beginning of the Roman period, the port was moved towards Qusayr al-Qadim, where there was a beautiful well-protected lagoon.

  • 2 Cuvigny 2003, p. 27; for Qusayr, site of Ptolemaic Myos Hormos, see Cohen 2006, pp. 336-337, n. 6.
  • 3 Weigall 1913, p. 81 and Pl. X, 21-24.
  • 4 Reinach 1910, p. 43. Cf. Cuvigny 2003, p. 19 and p. 282. It is of no use, I think, to minimise the (...)
  • 5 Haini el-Zeini, in Whitcomb, Johnson 1982, p. 399; cf. Peacock and Blue 2006, p. 15.
  • 6 Whitcomb 1996, p. 760.

4Another theory was that Roman Qusayr al-Qadim was an adjunct port for the increasingly busy port city of Myos Hormos/Qusayr.2 It was at Qusayr, in 1907, that Weigall signalled the presence of blocks with hieroglyphic inscriptions3 and that shortly after, A. Reinach mentioned a stele there from the 25th year of Augustus’ reign, dedicated to Isis Tamestome, an unpublished inscription that is now lost.4 All these finds have disappeared, but later Abdel Sayyed from the University of Alexandria reported the discovery of other blocks, from a Ptolemaic temple, and in the qibla of the El -Zilaii mosque, there are still two reused limestone blocks from a previous building. One should also mention that during excavations there, column bases were found.5 There are, thus, enough good arguments to infer the existence of a temple, probably Ptolemaic, on the site of the El-Zilaii mosque at Qusayr. According to Donald Whitcomb, it could be a temple of Hathor, commonly identified with Aphrodite, which would explain at the same time the parallel name of Myos Hormos, Ἀφροδίτης ὅρμος.6 The existence of this temple would imply that Qusayr was the location of the Ptolemaic harbour of Myos Hormos.

5However, it should be noted that, neither the Americans, during surveys in 1978, or later the British were able to discover other Ptolemaic and Roman remains at Qusayr. On the other hand, traces of a Ptolemaic presence at Qusayr al-Qadim are certainly rare, but there are some: glass fragments (Meyer 1992, p. 4), coins (Ptolemy III, Ptolemy VI Philometor, Cleopatra VII) and Ptolemaic pottery among the many amphorae found in “Trench 7A” of the University of Southampton excavations. The British archaeologists concluded that “Ptolemaic Myos Hormos was located at Qusayr al-Qadim, probably in the lower levels of the silted lagoon that we were unable to fully excavate” (Peacock, Blue 2006, p. 73).

6To summarize the situation:

(a) at Qusayr, a Ptolemaic temple, apparently isolated;

(b) at Qusayr al-Qadim, a city, a Roman port, no doubt Myos Hormos, with only a few Ptolemaic ruins.

  • 7 One can, however, doubt the official character of this foundation, see Cohen 2006, p. 335, n. 4.
  • 8 See Barbantani 2005, pp. 146-147.

7Ptolemaic traces at Qusayr al-Qadim are rare, but what can we hope to find here when we know from Strabo (2, 5, 12) that in the Ptolemaic period there were only a few brave people who sailed from Myos Hormos to India? The infrastructure will have been minimal, but, since the port was a Ptolemaic foundation,7 it is possible that there was a temple of Arsinoë, which would explain its parallel name Ἀφροδίτης ὅρμος, given the cult of the deified Arsinoë, identified with Aphrodite, goddess of the sea and protector of sailors and travellers; this cult spread very quickly in the Ptolemaic ports or those under the influence of the Ptolemies.8

  • 9 On the title “Préfet de Βérénice”, Cuvigny 2003, pp. 295-301; on Cosconius, ibid., 303. Cosconius f (...)
  • 10 On Philotera, see J. Regner, Philotera in RE, 39 Halbb. (1941), col. 1285-1294.

8Let us turn now to evidence of another kind. According to one of the ostraka found in Myos Hormos (inv. 278 W), there must have been a Ptolemaic temple around Myos Hormos. This is a laisser-passer signed by Cosconius, known from the ostraka of Krokodilô as the Prefect of the Desert or Berenike (around AD 109)9 for a certain Katoites, priest of Philotera, and his donkey. The destination of the priest is τὸ Φιλωτερῖον, undoubtedly a temple of Philotera (Philotereion, cf. Isieion, Arsinoeion), the deified sister of Ptolemy II.10 It is clear, in my opinion, that Cosconius found himself at Myos Hormos and that the temple is located outside the city. What is exceptional is the fact that Philotera’s cult, which is assumed to have ended relatively quickly, persisted here with a priest until the early second century AD.

  • 11 Bülow-Jacobsen et al. 1994, p. 32, n° II (SB 22. 15453); 33, n° III (= SB 22. 15454); Cuvigy 2003, (...)
  • 12 Cuvigny 2003, pp. 56-58.

9We cannot interpret this text without mentioning the texts on ostraka discovered at Maximianon (El Zerqa), a praesidium on the Coptos-Myos Hormos road. Some of these letters (17, of which 3 are published)11 are sent from a location that had Philotera as its tutelary goddess, according to the formula of worship at the beginning of the letters, which implies that there was a sanctuary of the goddess. The site from which these letters were sent must be located on the Coptos-Myos Hormos road, east of Maximianon. According to Adam Bülow-Jacobsen, a serious candidate is the praesidium of Simiou (Bi’r Sayyâla), 41km from Myos Hormos: its name could be derived from the name of a certain Simmias, who was sent by Ptolemy III to Africa in search of elephants. In addition, one of the letters (O.Max. Inv. 147) suggests a military presence, as in the other praesidia on the Myos Hormos road: Herennius, a cavalryman, asks his 'brother' to see if one of his friends at Maximianon could provide green fodder for his horse, who has not eaten for five days.12

  • 13 Cf. Aelius Herodianus and Pseudo-Herodianus, De prosodia catholica (Grammatici Graeci, vol. 3.1, Ed (...)
  • 14 See Cohen 2006, pp. 339-341.

10Another factor must be taken into account: a port on the Red sea, Philotera(s), is mentioned by Strabo, Pliny the Elder, Claudius Ptolemy (Φιλωτέρας λιμήν) and the grammarians, a city which is also called Philoteris.13 It would be normal to find a sanctuary to Philotera there. According to Strabo (16, 4, 5) it was a foundation of Satyros, who was sent by Ptolemy II to the country of the Troglodytes in search of elephants. Because of contradictory indications by geographers and ancient historians, the port was located almost everywhere along the coast, both north (Strabo, Pliny) and south (Ptolemy) of Myos Hormos, but a consensus seems to be emerging for locating it near Safaga, at Mersa Gawasis, about 50 km north of Qusayr al-Qadim.14 It is possible that this port is mentioned in some ostraka from Myos Hormos:

- in a letter (Inv. O.193) from one of the praesidia of the Myos Hormos road, a certain Maximus said that he will leave for Philoteris and do his shopping (ἀπελεύσω εἰς Φιλωτερὶν καὶ ἀγοράσω).

  • 15 See W. Van Rengen 2001, pp. 233-236.

- a laisser-passez (Inv. O.263.):15 Priscus duplicarius: let pass Takubis and Kronous ἐς Φιλωτερίν (corrected from -τεραν).

- a fragmentary laisser-passez (Inv. O.324) issued by Cosconius (cf. supra) who orders to let pass two ... (to?) Philot[...].

  • 16 On the paralemptes Avitus, see Cuvigny 2005, pp. 13-16 and most recently Ast and Bagnall 2015.

- finally, a request (Inv. O.512) from Pakybis, an Ichthyophage, to Avitus, a well known paralemptes,16 to let pass a schedia (small boat) εἰς Φιλ[ωτερ.ν]; in the signature we find a slightly more complete toponym: πάρες Φιλωτ[ερ.ν] (let pass to Philot[er..]

11It should be noted that in the last two texts, the end of the toponym is missing, so we cannot exclude that the port of Philotera was mentioned here: in inv. O.263 (v. supra) the correction of Φιλωτέραν to Φιλωτερίν indeed shows that there is hesitation between the two names, perhaps, but not necessarily an indication that these are two distinct cities.

  • 17 Cuvigny 2003, pp. 53, 56-58.

12All of this is confusing: we have on the one hand the Philotera of the historians and ancient geographers (Philoteris in Apollodorus and –in Latin– in Pomponius Mela); and on the other hand, Philoteris exclusively in at least two Myos Hormos ostraka –once Philotera was corrected to Philoteris–, and a Philotereion in a laissez-passer from Myos Hormos, a temple with a priest, undoubtedly a cult, the existence of which is indirectly confirmed by the proskynemata in front of Philotera in letters found between Maximianon and the coast, probably Simiou (B'ir Sayyâla?).17

13Among several possibilities, here are some options:

- we could consider the different names as variants of the name of a single city, north or south of Myos Hormos, a port, which was called Philotera(s) or Philoteris, where there was a temple of Philotera, a Philotereion.

- idem, but with the Philotereion located elsewhere, somewhere around Myos Hormos.

- two separate locations: a port Philotera (or Philoteris) and a site (a praesidium?) Philoteris with a temple of Philotera (Philotereion).

- three places: a port Philotera, a city of Philoteris (perhaps also a port), and an isolated temple of Philotera.

14In the first case, it would be necessary to relocate Philotera(s) away from Wâdi Gawasis. When one considers the relatively numerous letters with proskynema in front of the goddess Philotera, it seems unlikely that they were sent from Wâdi Gawasis to Maximianon (cf. n. 17). If one looks for a port with a temple that is not too far from Myos Hormos, Qusayr, which is also located at the end of the Myos Hormos road, is a candidate. Unfortunately, no archaeological evidence of occupation during the Roman period is attested at Qusayr and the identification of Qusayr with a hypothetical Ptolemaic Philotera/Philoteris with limited commercial activity that was quickly, under the Ptolemies, moved to the beautiful lagoon of Myos Hormos (Qusayr al-Qadim), is appealing, but for the moment purely hypothetical.

15We could keep a port Philotera at Wâdi Gawasis and a sanctuary of Philotera at the praesidium of Simiou, if the letters with proskynema to the goddess Philotera were sent from there. It is of course possible to have a praesidium with a tutelary deity whose main temple is located elsewhere. But then, what to do with the city of Philoteris?

  • 18 H. Kees (RE XX, 1941, s.v. Philoteras, col. 180-1) reached the same conclusion on the basis of only (...)

16Finally, I believe that in the current state of the literary documentation and the papyrological evidence, it is prudent to distinguish between Philotera and Philoteris, which could explain the confusion of the Roman geographers regarding the variation in the name of these two cities (which they believed were only one) and their position, one to the north, the other to the south of Myos Hormos.18

17The temple of the goddess Philotera, which, according to the laissez-passer of its priest, must have been located near Myos Hormos, might have been at Qusayr, as we have seen, though the identification of this city with Philoteris remains doubtful.

  • 19 On Bi’r Kareim, see Whitcomb & Johnson 1982, pp. 391-396; Klemm 2013, pp. 148-151.

18Could there be other possibilities for a site with a Ptolemaic temple, situated between Maximianon and Myos Hormos? I know only one, situated on an alternative route to the Red Sea, parallel to the Coptos-Myos Hormos road. It has the additional advantage of being the closest source of fresh water to Myos Hormos: Bi'r Kareim.19 It is an enigmatic site, an uncharacteristic mining site (Klemm 2013, p. 149), which has not been excavated, only visited. While Whitcomb in 1980 considered Bi'r Kareim as contemporary to Roman Qusayr al-Qadim, Rosemarie Klemm and Dietrich Klemm proposed that the site was already exploited during the Ptolemaic period. Moreover, during a visit in 2000, I happened to pick up the handle of a Rhodian amphora with a stamp on it with the text ἐπὶ Πολυ/κράτευς (ca. 240-225 or 219-210 BC), which places Bi'r Kareim definitively among the Ptolemaic sites of the third century. A remarkable building there was identified for the first time by Prickett in 1979 as a temple: it consists of two inner courtyards, 3 cellae and three bedrooms to the east, probably for priests or servants. It is likely that this is a Ptolemaic temple, but so far this assumption lacks archaeological confirmation. That said, the temple of Bi’r Kareim is a hypothetical Philotereion.

19There are therefore two Ptolemaic temples around Myos Hormos, two possible Philotereia, Qusayr and Bi’r Kareim. As for the location of Philoteris, the only information we have is in the Myos Hormos ostraka, two of which are incomplete, precisely at the place where the flexional ending of the toponym (-εραν or -εριν) could have suggested a solution to the issue of two separate locations. In addition, if the ostracon (inv. O.512) with the request of an Ichthyophage to let a boat pass through had been complete (with the place name Φιλωτερίν), we would know that Philoteris is a port. Now, because of these two centimetres of missing text, nothing is certain and the problem of Philoteris remains unresolved at the moment.

Bibliographie

  

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Notes

1 On Myos Hormos, with a detailed summary of the hypotheses about the location, see Cohen 2006, pp. 332-338.

2 Cuvigny 2003, p. 27; for Qusayr, site of Ptolemaic Myos Hormos, see Cohen 2006, pp. 336-337, n. 6.

3 Weigall 1913, p. 81 and Pl. X, 21-24.

4 Reinach 1910, p. 43. Cf. Cuvigny 2003, p. 19 and p. 282. It is of no use, I think, to minimise the importance of this discovery, as David Peacock did in Peacock and Blue 2006, p. 15.

5 Haini el-Zeini, in Whitcomb, Johnson 1982, p. 399; cf. Peacock and Blue 2006, p. 15.

6 Whitcomb 1996, p. 760.

7 One can, however, doubt the official character of this foundation, see Cohen 2006, p. 335, n. 4.

8 See Barbantani 2005, pp. 146-147.

9 On the title “Préfet de Βérénice”, Cuvigny 2003, pp. 295-301; on Cosconius, ibid., 303. Cosconius figures in 5 ostraca of Krokodilô, see Cuvigny 2005, index of people’s names, p. 196.

10 On Philotera, see J. Regner, Philotera in RE, 39 Halbb. (1941), col. 1285-1294.

11 Bülow-Jacobsen et al. 1994, p. 32, n° II (SB 22. 15453); 33, n° III (= SB 22. 15454); Cuvigy 2003, p. 404 (inv. M.147).

12 Cuvigny 2003, pp. 56-58.

13 Cf. Aelius Herodianus and Pseudo-Herodianus, De prosodia catholica (Grammatici Graeci, vol. 3.1, Ed. Lentz, A.), 3,1.260.: μεθ' ὧν καὶ <Φιλωτέρα> πόλις περὶ τὴν Τρωγλοδυτικήν, Σατύρου κτίσμα. Ἀπολλόδωρος δὲ Φιλωτερίδα καλεῖ. and ibid., 3,1. 100, 8) 9: <Φιλωτερίς> πόλις περὶ τὴν Τρωγλοδυτικήν, καὶ Φιλωτέρα.

14 See Cohen 2006, pp. 339-341.

15 See W. Van Rengen 2001, pp. 233-236.

16 On the paralemptes Avitus, see Cuvigny 2005, pp. 13-16 and most recently Ast and Bagnall 2015.

17 Cuvigny 2003, pp. 53, 56-58.

18 H. Kees (RE XX, 1941, s.v. Philoteras, col. 180-1) reached the same conclusion on the basis of only this literary tradition.

19 On Bi’r Kareim, see Whitcomb & Johnson 1982, pp. 391-396; Klemm 2013, pp. 148-151.

Auteur

Professor at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (Belgium)

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